President Trump escalated his war against the FBI over the weekend, again accusing the agency of bias and sarcastically commenting on the departure of its deputy director.
Trump’s tweets are part of a broader Republican effort to impugn the law-enforcement agency — not traditionally known as a hotbed of liberal sentiment — over accusations of bias against the president. In doing so, Trump and his GOP allies in government and media also hope to undermine the investigation into Russian electoral interference by special counsel Robert Mueller, the former head of the FBI. The overarching strategy of sowing doubt could obviate the need for Trump to fire Mueller altogether, which would set off a firestorm.
Trump’s unceasing broadsides against the FBI serve as valuable data for one of the big open questions observers asked when he took office: Are American institutions sturdy enough to withstand an all-out assault from a president who would rather be an authoritarian than the leader of a republic?
For the agency, the answer is getting a little less clear. It has hardly been purged of everyone suspected of harboring #resistance sympathies. But on Thursday, FBI director Christopher Wray announced that top FBI lawyer James Baker, an ally of former director James Comey and a target of GOP attacks, had been reassigned, much to Comey’s chagrin. Then, on Saturday, FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, whom Trump has been criticizing for more than a year, announced that he would retire when he became eligible for his pension next year.
Wray had been expected to appoint his own top staff when he became director in May, and McCabe’s departure was not unexpected. But the timing of Baker’s reassignment struck many as a sign that the agency might be beginning to crack under Republican pressure.
“If I were Wray and I meant to replace my general counsel, the antics of the last two weeks would have convinced me not to do it under fire to make sure no one thinks I am giving the administration a scalp,” national-security-law expert (and Twitter celebrity) Benjamin Wittes told Business Insider.
McCabe, who is widely respected within the agency, originally drew Trump’s wrath because he helped oversee the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server, which ultimately ended without charges. Weeks before the 2016 election, The Wall Street Journal reported that his wife, Jill McCabe, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from political groups related to Governor Terry McAuliffe — a close friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton’s — during an unsuccessful run for state Senate in 2015. This extremely thin connective tissue was all Trump needed to go on the attack. When the president fired James Comey from the FBI in May, he was temporarily replaced by McCabe, and Trump urged Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire him, too, a plea that went unanswered.
McCabe reentered the spotlight last month when the New York Times reported that Mueller had removed FBI agent Peter Strozk from his investigation after learning that Strozk had sent anti-Trump text messages during the 2016 campaign. The evidence of widespread bias within Mueller’s team was weak, especially considering the FBI’s noted rightward tilt in the run-up to the 2016 election. (“Trumpland,” anyone?) But part of the conservative case against Strozk consisted of a cryptic message he sent that also seemed to implicate McCabe. It read: “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk. It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”
It turned out the “insurance policy” simply referred to going forward with an investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia on the off chance he won the election. But that explanation wasn’t enough for congressional Republicans, who questioned McCabe for many hours this week. “He oughta be replaced. And I’ve said that before and I’ve said it to people who can do it,” Senator Chuck Grassley told reporters.
Now that Baker and McCabe are indeed on the way out, Wray can chart his own course forward at the FBI. But which way will he steer? The director is an unenviable position; the Times reported on Friday that, because of the supercharged partisan atmosphere, “Senior agents have expressed fear that if their names appear in the news media, they will be singled out for attack by politicians.” Republicans are unlikely to be satisfied with a few minor shuffles at the agency; they’re out for blood.
Trump and his allies may claim they want a nonpartisan FBI, but of course what they really long for is a loyal one. President Trump infamously demanded loyalty from James Comey (as McCabe attested to this week), and when he didn’t get it, fired him.
In testimony before Congress earlier this month, Wray forcefully defended his agency from presidential attack. “The FBI I see,” he said, “is tens of thousands of brave men and women who are working as hard as they can to keep people that they will never know safe from harm.”
That all sounds well and good. But to maintain the integrity of his institution, Wray will have to do more than pay lip service to his agents; he’ll likely need to shield some of them from what is likely to be a sustained attack on their reputations. The next few months will show if he’s up to the task.